Anyone else would have quit earlier. Their factories in ruin, their army routed, their air force eliminated, their people struggling and starving, the Nazis fought on, long after victory was all but impossible, long after complete defeat was all but inevitable, long after public support and, finally, the pinions of government itself, collapsed. And yet the war went on, the fighting continued, the propaganda effort accelerated, the resistance stiffened.
Of the many mysteries surrounding Nazi Germany, this has been one of the deepest and most debated. Now Ian Kershaw, author of a two-volume biography of Hitler, takes the period from the failed bomb plot against Hitler in July 1944 to the end of the war in May 1945 and offers a persuasive explanation for why, unlike almost every other nation facing certain defeat, Nazi Germany didn’t negotiate and in fact didn’t stop fighting until the country was “militarily battered into submission, its economy destroyed, its cities in ruins, the country occupied by foreign powers.’’
Nazi Germany was unlike perhaps any other country - even any other dictatorship - in its structure, in its mixture of fanatics and fantasies, in its devotion to a tyrant who intertwined his rule with the survival of his country, and in its ability to support a regime even as it grew to despise it. At the end Nazi Germany was not merely a tragedy but a contradiction - “charismatic rule,’’ as Kershaw puts it in the penultimate paragraph of his study, “without charisma.’’
In explaining the end, Kershaw deftly explains the beginning of Nazism and its appeal. He argues that the principal reason Germany in 1945 didn’t repeat the unrest and rebellion at the end of World War I in 1918 wasn’t that Germans were beaten senseless by tyranny but that Germans possessed “the loyalty of those who had burnt their boats together and now had no way out.’’ So the war continued, against terrible odds and finally amid near hopelessness, until the Red Army reached Berlin.
Kershaw’s book doesn’t break new ground so much as sift and shift a familiar plot. As a result, Kershaw changes our perceptions of Nazi Germany’s decline and fall rather than the body of knowledge about the destruction of wartime Germany and the defeat of Hitler.
Even so, the result is an important study, academic but still approachable. He argues that from crisis to crisis, from assassination attempt to crushing battlefield defeat, the German bureaucracy and military shied from skepticism and defeatism, doubling and then redoubling their loyalty to Hitler.
This impulse was a tactic that became a strategy. “Doing what was humanly possible to prevent the destruction of the Reich was seen as the unquestioned imperative,’’ Kershaw writes. “In adhering to such a goal, of course, the generals ensured that precisely this destruction would happen.’’
Indeed, the choices boiled down to two - victory or doom - and the phrase in circulation was that the war had to be “fanaticized.’’
Hitler’s belief that he could prevail against all evidence and logic was fortified by his recognition that his opponents comprised an unlikely coalition, “ultra-capitalist states on one side and ultra-Marxist states on the other,’’ Hitler said, “on one side a dying world empire, Britain, and on the other side a colony seeking an inheritance, the USA.’’
The end was a process, not an event. The age for labor conscription of women was increased to 55. Men as old as 60 were drawn into militia. As the leadership hardened, the people softened. Gradually the Hitler salute became less prominent. Despair grew, along with fear. “Most people,’’ Kershaw writes, “simply wanted the war to end - and hoped that Anglo-American occupation would keep the Bolsheviks from their throats.’’
Among the troops the belief spread that their efforts were designed to buy time for Hitler - for miracle weapons to emerge, for U-boats to prevail, for the Allies to crumble. At the beginning of 1945, despite the despair, the lack of reinforcements and provisions, and amid worries of weakening defenses, discipline still held. “The Nazi regime remained an immensely strong dictatorship, holding together in the mounting adversity and prepared to use increasingly brutal force in controlling and regimenting German society at more or less every point,’’ Kershaw writes
Indeed, Joachim von Ribbentrop told a Japanese ambassador that “Germany now holds the initiative everywhere.’’ But then came the calamity in the East, the great Soviet offensive.
While this is a story of great powers and great military machinery, it is ultimately the story of great terror and great tragedy, especially in the East, with millions killed, wounded, displaced, and disabled. Some were left burrowing for food, others left powerless, pushing wagons full of their depleted possessions, still others exposed on ice to fright and enemy bombing as they sought to flee.
The worse things got, the worse the domestic terror got, the stronger what Kershaw calls “[t]he regime’s reflex to outright violence’’ became, resulting in “a new level of violence arbitrarily directed against anyone seen to block or oppose the fight to the finish.’’ The result was a race to liquidate Jews and other prisoners as swiftly and brutally as possible.
Berlin before the end was a ruin of bomb craters, empty streets, and vacant stores, and in his bunker Hitler concluded that the German people had “proved themselves unworthy of him,’’ when of course the reverse was the truth.
The war then was distilled down to its final rationale, the avoidance of Soviet occupation. “The consequence of doing all in their power to prevent this happening,’’ he writes, “was the prolongation of the war, and the lifespan of the Nazi regime, with all the suffering this entailed.’’
The end cost Germany dearly - more German civilian deaths than in all that led up to it, with as many German military casualties in the final four months as in the first four years. Everything about the Nazi regime was lunacy, but the end requires the “deep repentance’’ of Shakespeare’s Cawdor at the gallows, for nothing in its life explained Nazism like the leaving it.David M. Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, can be reached at email@example.com.